Ryan (left) and Brown (right) are key emojis in messaging apps KakaoTalk and Line. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf

One is a lion called Ryan, the other is a bear called Brown. They are superstars in Asia: Kids fight to get their fluffy toys, young adults walk around with them on their smartphone covers.

So are they heroes from an animated film? A cartoon? A comic? Not exactly.

Ryan and Brown are two “emojis” – a Japanese portmanteau of “picture” and “character” – sometimes referred to as “stickers” in online lingo – created by the two leading messaging Korean apps: KakaoTalk and Line, respectively. They are not the same as “emoticons” – an English portmanteau of “emotion” and “icon”, which are based around Roman characters, punctuation marks and numbers to create simple images that convey emotions.

Emojis and stickers are much more. Users can send each other still or animated versions of character images to enliven online conversations, and can buy collections of new emojis online.

This adds up to lucrative business for the two companies, which both boast economies of scale. KakaoTalk is used by 90% of South Korean smartphone users and Line – a service created by Naver, a portal that is sometimes referred to as the Korean equivalent of Google – is the leading messaging app in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand.

The numbers speak volumes: 20% of Line’s revenues come from selling stickers, while KakaoTalk’s number of emojis has jumped from 480 in 2012 to 6,500 in 2017 – 13-fold growth in five years.

And it is not just online. KakaoTalk and Line also manufactures hundreds of pieces of offline merchandise for their “friends” (ie emoji characters). From cosmetics to Bluetooth speakers, thermos, dishes, accessories, electronics, travel kits…all can be acquired, branded with popular emojis.

The messaging firms also partner with offline companies like Korean bakery franchise Paris Baguette or Japanese clothing store Uniqlo. There is even a concept museum dedicated to Kakao Friends in Seoul, which lures tourists from across the continent.

But why have emojis got so big in East Asia rather than in the West, which is where most pop culture trends originate?

At Line’s brick-and-mortar stores, Brown has made the transition from online to off. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf

Kingdoms of cute

“If they succeeded so massively in Asia, compared to the US or Europe, it is linked to the long history of cuteness in those countries,” Gabriele de Seta, a researcher in anthropology at Taiwan’s Sinica Academy, told Asia Times. “In Japan or Korea, every city has its own mascot and everyone knows Pokemon or Hello Kitty.”

Cute culture – “Kawaï” (Japan) or “aegyo” (Korea) – runs deep, from manga, anime, mascots and cosplay to the girlish language and mannerisms sometimes adopted by older women.  A linked, and highly visible East Asian habit is “cute customization to humanize technological spaces,” according to Larissa Hjorth, co-director of the research laboratory of digital ethnology at RMIT University in Australia in her 2009 book “Gift of Presence: A Case Study of a South Korean Virtual Community, Cyworld’s Mini-hompy.”

It all started in Japan in 1998, when interface designer Shigetaka Kurita developed 176 emojis  for telco NTT Docomo. They were made for pagers, as with pagers, it was only possible to type a very limited amount of characters in a message.

How it all started: Prototype emojis by Japanese telco NTT Docomo. Image: NTT Docomo Inc

Apple drew inspiration from those, 10 years later, to create its first set of colored emojis targeted at Japanese iPhone users. Since then, emojis have flooded the world. As of 2010, the computer industry standard UNICODE has defined which basic emojis should be available on all messaging software, social medias and phone applications.

Korea’s online culture has long had a strong emphasis on visuals and characterization. For example, the now defunct Cyworld social media platform enabled high levels of customization of its “mini-homphy” (personalized user pages) and was heavily populated with avatars. Today, based upon this weighty mish-mash of heritage, modern culture and technology, it’s hardly surprising that Line and KakaoTalk invested so much in the creation of emojis.

Line was the first application to offer sticker collections in 2011. The concept has since been imitated by most messaging apps – including Facebook’s Messenger – but none have managed to integrate it into their brands as successfully as Line and KakaoTalk.

“Facebook wasn’t good at creating animated characters when it released its first stickers,” de Seta said. “There’s not one sticker set that comes to mind if I think about Facebook [but] those from Line or Kakao are iconic.”

It is not just cultural, however. Science explains why humans universally respond to such non-verbal cues as emojis rather than plain words.

Animating communication

Only 7% of human communication comes from words, so SMS lose 93% of meaning according to Alecka Camp, a researcher in psychology at Westfield State University in the US; emojis thus fill a void in text communication. “This – and maybe the millennial laziness!” she told Asia Times. “Instead of writing a message to explain this specific emotion, [users] find an image that summarizes it all at once.”

“People do use emojis to express their feelings when they can’t find their words,” agreed Angela Guzman. Guzman was the co-creator of the first set of emoticons developed in 2008 by Apple; she has since worked with AirBnB and Google on user experience.  “An emoji translates a movement or a habit,” she told Asia Times – in other words, they can incarnate mannerisms and summon memories.

For Linda Kaye, researcher in psychology at Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom, they also allow users to avoid misunderstandings and transmit irony and humor. “For example, we use the happy emoji to be sure that we understand each other,” she told Asia Times.

Kaye and her team are, for example, trying to figure out if emojis are understood by our brains as essentially “emotional words” which are processed faster and in a different way than non-emotional words. For instance, “happy” is processed faster by the brain than, say, “chair” or “table.”,

“The history of online communication is complex but one of its constants is the weight of image over text,” added de Seta, who has been researching emojis, especially in China, to try to understand how they affect our relation toward language. Along with the aforementioned researchers, he is still one of the few to do so.

Platforms now exist where creators can submit characters that will become part of the emoji world. Image: Line Friends – Naver

You are next…

Can current emojis stay popular when every messaging app is competing for the newest idea?

Perhaps not. Kakao has already noticed in its stats that users under 20 years old lack emoji loyalty, and tend to just use the trendy characters of the moment; they are not attached to characters like “Ryan the Bear” the way older users are.

“I found it interesting the way emojis have grown,” said Gunzman. “But there are so many today it’s sometimes hard to find the right one. I’m afraid it might become too complicated to continue using emojis with so much choice at hand.”

The Chinese app WeChat might have nailed the solution.

 “On the app, you have a gallery with a limited number of emojis, GIFS, emoticons, images, etc that you can add,” said de Seta. “Once you reach the limit, you have to delete previous emojis to replace them.” The researcher added: “I guess companies are always searching for the next big thing.”

And that next thing might have already appeared in Korea. Since last December, the Korean app Zepeto has been one of the most downloaded social media apps in the American Apple store.

Its concept? Take a selfie and see it transformed into an emoji … of yourself.

Join the Conversation

884 Comments

  1. I like what you guys are up also. Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the superb works guys I¡¦ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it’ll improve the value of my web site 🙂

  2. I think this is one of the most important info for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But should remark on few general things, The website style is great, the articles is really excellent : D. Good job, cheers

  3. I am not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for excellent information I was looking for this information for my mission.

  4. Hi there, You have done an incredible job. I will definitely digg it and personally suggest to my friends. I am sure they’ll be benefited from this site.

  5. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one nowadays..

  6. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

  7. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

  8. I loved as much as you’ll receive carried out right here. The sketch is tasteful, your authored material stylish. nonetheless, you command get bought an impatience over that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come more formerly again since exactly the same nearly very often inside case you shield this increase.

  9. It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy. I have read this post and if I could I want to suggest you few interesting things or tips. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I desire to read even more things about it!

  10. Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all folks you really understand what you’re speaking about! Bookmarked. Please also talk over with my web site =). We may have a link change arrangement between us!

  11. I want to express my appreciation to the writer just for bailing me out of this type of setting. After looking through the world wide web and getting views that were not beneficial, I assumed my entire life was well over. Existing without the presence of solutions to the difficulties you have solved all through your entire write-up is a crucial case, and ones that might have negatively damaged my entire career if I hadn’t come across your blog. Your own personal mastery and kindness in dealing with all areas was tremendous. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had not discovered such a step like this. I can now look forward to my future. Thanks for your time very much for this reliable and results-oriented help. I will not hesitate to refer your web site to anyone who requires assistance about this issue.

  12. I want to express my appreciation to the writer just for bailing me out of this type of setting. After looking through the world wide web and getting views that were not beneficial, I assumed my entire life was well over. Existing without the presence of solutions to the difficulties you have solved all through your entire write-up is a crucial case, and ones that might have negatively damaged my entire career if I hadn’t come across your blog. Your own personal mastery and kindness in dealing with all areas was tremendous. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had not discovered such a step like this. I can now look forward to my future. Thanks for your time very much for this reliable and results-oriented help. I will not hesitate to refer your web site to anyone who requires assistance about this issue.

  13. Fantastic goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you are just extremely fantastic. I really like what you have acquired here, really like what you are stating and the way in which you say it. You make it entertaining and you still take care of to keep it sensible. I can’t wait to read far more from you. This is really a tremendous site.

  14. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is wonderful blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

  15. Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all folks you really understand what you’re speaking about! Bookmarked. Please also talk over with my web site =). We may have a link change arrangement between us!

  16. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

  17. I will immediately snatch your rss as I can not find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Please permit me recognise in order that I may just subscribe. Thanks.

  18. I think this is one of the most important info for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But should remark on few general things, The website style is great, the articles is really excellent : D. Good job, cheers

  19. I have to get across my admiration for your generosity supporting persons who really want assistance with the area. Your very own dedication to getting the message all over has been extraordinarily functional and has in every case enabled ladies like me to reach their endeavors. Your new helpful publication signifies a great deal to me and far more to my colleagues. With thanks; from each one of us.

  20. Thank you for all your work on this site. Gloria enjoys carrying out investigation and it’s really easy to understand why. All of us hear all about the lively mode you convey vital things through this website and cause response from others about this point then our own child is without a doubt learning a lot. Enjoy the remaining portion of the new year. You’re the one carrying out a powerful job.

  21. I do accept as true with all of the ideas you have offered for your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are too brief for novices. Could you please prolong them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.

  22. Great beat ! I wish to apprentice while you amend your site, how can i subscribe for a blog website? The account helped me a acceptable deal. I had been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided bright clear concept

  23. You really make it seem really easy with your presentation but I to find this topic to be actually one thing which I think I might by no means understand. It seems too complicated and extremely wide for me. I’m looking ahead for your next put up, I will try to get the hang of it!

  24. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do some research on this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such great info being shared freely out there.

  25. I was just looking for this info for a while. After 6 hours of continuous Googleing, finally I got it in your web site. I wonder what’s the lack of Google strategy that do not rank this type of informative websites in top of the list. Generally the top web sites are full of garbage.

  26. Hey, you used to write fantastic, but the last several posts have been kinda boring¡K I miss your tremendous writings. Past several posts are just a little out of track! come on!

  27. magnificent submit, very informative. I wonder why the opposite specialists of this sector do not understand this. You must proceed your writing. I’m confident, you have a great readers’ base already!

  28. Wow, fantastic blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is magnificent, as well as the content!

  29. I loved as much as you’ll receive carried out right here. The sketch is tasteful, your authored material stylish. nonetheless, you command get bought an impatience over that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come more formerly again since exactly the same nearly very often inside case you shield this increase.

  30. I simply wanted to say thanks again. I’m not certain the things I would’ve carried out in the absence of these points provided by you regarding such field. It was before a real daunting difficulty in my view, nevertheless considering the very skilled style you treated the issue took me to jump with fulfillment. Extremely grateful for the advice and then expect you comprehend what a great job that you’re putting in training the rest all through your site. Most likely you’ve never met all of us.

  31. I like what you guys are up also. Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the superb works guys I¡¦ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it’ll improve the value of my web site 🙂

  32. What i do not understood is actually how you are not really a lot more well-favored than you may be right now. You are so intelligent. You recognize therefore considerably on the subject of this matter, produced me in my opinion believe it from so many various angles. Its like men and women are not involved until it is one thing to do with Girl gaga! Your own stuffs excellent. At all times maintain it up!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *